A Catholic Church in Buddhist land : the story behind Cizhong

A few hours south of the Khawa Karpo, the sacred mountain that attract several thousands of pilgrims every year, the century old Catholic church of Cizhong (茨中天主教堂) seems out of place in this Tibetan Buddhist land of northern Yunnan province.

The journey from Deqin (德钦) to Cizhong (茨中) is unforgettable. From Deqin, the bus drives south on a half-paved half-dirt road suspended above the Mekong gorges. Beautiful scenery, scary ride. Isolated Tibetan hamlets are scattered in the middle of a tortuous entanglement of chiseled mountain ridges.

Cizhong, Yunnan

After the township of Yunling (云岭县), the road winds down deep in the valley and runs parallel to the Mekong River. In this part of Yunnan, the Mekong is called the “Lancang River” (澜沧江) which means “Blue Green Swelling Waters”, yet the brownish waters flow down impassibly towards the south.

At this latitude, three of Asia’s most important rivers flow in parallels, each separated by a mountain range. The Salween (怒江), the Mekong(澜沧江) in the middle and the Yangze River (长江). This region named the “Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan” (云南三江并流) is a UNESCO protected area.

Cizong, Yunnan

From the Cizhong bridge, there is a short walk to get to the plateau where is located a cluster of hamlets in the middle of rice paddies and vineyards planted by French and Swiss missionaries more than one hundred years ago.

A church in Buddhist land

During the mid-nineteenth century a French missionary disguised as a Chinese merchant traveled on the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道). He spent two years in the Dongzhulin (东竹林) monastery near Benzilan (奔子栏), half way between Zhongdian (中甸) and Deqin (德钦).

After having mastered Tibetan language he set out to build missions in northern Yunnan , on the border with Tibet. French and Swiss missionaries followed and settled in this remote region of Yunnan province. Their goal was to spread the Gospel,  to learn Tibetan language and culture, to translate the Bible in Tibetan and to wait for the gates of the Himalayan Kingdom to open.

French and Swiss missionaries never went to Tibet which remained a forbidden Kingdom, closed to foreigners and their religion. Instead, they settled in Kham, this historical Tibetan region that spreads across northern Yunnan and southwestern Sichuan. They built churches in Batang, Litang, Yerkalo (now in Tibet, a few hours from Deqin), and in the Mekong and Salween valleys of northern Yunnan.

Expelled from China in the 1950s, the missionaries let behind a small but strong Catholic communities in remote regions of north Yunnan province.

Cizhong, Yunnan

A walk in the former apostolic district of Cizhong

Cizhong is home to a population of ethnic Lisu (傈僳族), Yi (彝族) and Tibetan (藏族), 80% of whom is Catholic. They all speak Tibetan, however nobody reads or write it. It seems that everyone lives in harmony. The remaining 20% of Tibetan Buddhist join the Catholic during their celebration of Christmas and vice-verse during the Tibetan new year.

The church is surrounded by vineyards planted by the missionaries 150 years ago. Each household owns a plot of the vineyard. Some villagers sell the grapes on the market of the nearby village of Badi, and other still make red wine following the techniques taught by the missionaries.

Cizhong, Yunnan

Built at the end of the nineteenth century, Cizhong church was destroyed during anti-christian violence in the region in the early 1900s. Some missionaries were killed and they still rest in peace in a graveyard that dominate the Mekong valley and located high in the mountains.

Cizhong church was rebuilt in 1911 and a Chinese-style pavilion-like structure was added on top of the bell tower later. In the 1950s, after the foreign missionaries were forced to leave China and that religion was banned, Cizhong church was transformed into a primary school.

Cizhong, Yunnan

Spared during the Cultural Revolution

Used as a school, Cizhong church was spared during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Wall frescoes that depicted scene of Jesus Christ’s life were erased by the Red Guards.

Fortunately, they spared non-religious decorations on the church’s arches and pillars which were painted during the reconstruction of the structure in 1911. These decorations are in bad shape, yet they show how local symbolism of the dragon, phoenix and lotus have merged with the Catholic church of Cizhong.

Cizhong, Yunnan

A priest-less mass

There are no priest in the valley. Actually,in Dali, there are only two or three priests who are in charge of an area the size of half the French territory.

Nonetheless, villagers gather religiously every Sunday for an improvised mass. Women sit on the left hand side and men on the right. They sing Catholic songs in Tibetan, like the missionaries taught their ancestors 100 years ago.

Before and after the mass, villagers gather in front of the church, in front of the building that used to be the living quarters of the missionaries. They will fight to have the honor to have you over for lunch and some of the elders who were taught by the French and Swiss missionaries have not forgotten their Latin.

Cizhong, Yunnan

Cizhong really comes down as one of the most memorable trip in Yunnan province. It embodies the province rich ethnic and cultural diversity surrounded a beautiful scenery.


There are 8 comments

  1. Nils Finn Munch-Petersen

    I just came back from Yunnan (to the Island of Bornholm, Denmark, where I live) including a visit to the Cizhong Church. The church is still there, but will close for lunch! from 12 to 14, rather forcefully by an angry rector pointing to his watch and shouting loudly at locals and visitors praying or enjoying the quiet of the Church..
    The church is truly beautiful, but photography inside has now been prohibited.
    Anyway, this is not my main point, I have been told that a local bottled wine is produced, with the church on the label. I have tried to find this wine on the Internet – with no success.
    Can anyone help ?

  2. Jock

    Just seen a film on BBC about this village.The Communists interned many Catholics in this town for 30 years,to re-educate them in the Cultural Revolution,but the Catholics kept their Faith,and when released continued in their Faith,an example to us all who live in democratic countries.Faith Of Our Fathers Living Still,In Spite Of Dungeon Fire And Sword

  3. Nancy Li

    Are you sure that the church didn’t have a priest? My family and I went to that church on our vacation in Yunnan. The church is beautiful. There, in the living quarters inside the church gates, an old man who I believe is the priest, cooked lunch for us and our tour guides.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Nancy! Things change fast in China. I went to Cizhong a few years ago to conduct research on the history of French and Swiss missionaries in the Yunnanese Kham. At that time, there was no priest living in the village. I did meet with a Chinese priest in Weixi and I later saw him again in Dali. I know that foreign priests sometimes come to celebrate the mass during key Catholic festival (like Easter for example), they do not only go to Cizhong, but also to nearby hamlets of Cigu, Kaiduka and Badong.
      There was a villager who studied medicine and who officed inside the living quarters. I don’t remember his name though.
      Have you ask him where their priest was?

      1. Nancy

        I assumed that the man serving us lunch was the priest. He also talked about things like conducting mass in Han Chinese rather than the local dialects.

  4. expatlingo

    How wonderful to stumble across your write up as I am sitting in Cizhong at this very moment! The road through the valley cut by the Mekong appears to be undergoing a major upgrade. Feels like an area where things are changing quickly as it looks like several hydro power projects are underway.

    1. Gaetan

      Nice! I hope you are also enjoying a good cup of local wine. Hopefully the upcoming change is also going to benefit to the local people. It feels like they are no remote regions in China anymore.

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